Monday, May 8, 2017

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Apart from coming up with one of the greatest ever (in my view) titles for a novel, old Philip K Dick was a pretty bright bloke, in that his book explores the relationship between humans and our machine counterparts - something we are only really scratching the surface of nearly 50 years after it was first published.

This robot was not featured at the conference, it's just a random picture, but ah, bless him, what a cutie
His book was never far from my mind when I was at the inaugural Global Manufacturing and Industrialisation Summit (GMIS), at the end of March, in Abu Dhabi, because the topic of robots, automation and artificial intelligence arose again and again throughout.

I think I was probably one of the few people to have sat through the entire three day summit, as I was compiling a report for a forecasting and research company on the major outcomes, and I came away feeling slightly reassured that while perhaps we are all dooooooomed, doooooomed, I tell you, as all of our jobs, even mine will one day be taken over by a robot that is vastly more intelligent, efficient, and less demanding of biscuits, Yorkshire teabags, chicken sandwiches and Cadbury's Dairy Milk, than I am, it may not happen as quickly as some might think.

An electric sheep, also not featured at GMIS, but, oh you know, see above

Here are my key takeaways from the event:

1. Automation and robots are coming, there is nothing we can do about it. It is human instinct to want to find ways of doing things more efficiently, and eliminating human error through the use of robotics is therefore inevitable.

2. We have been here before. The headlines you are seeing about "humans need not apply" were described as "scaremongering" by an Oxford University academic, who said that all the arguments currently being made against automation were made in the first industrial revolution (we are on the fourth now) and that while technology exists, it is not being implemented as fast as you might expect. In addition, the origin of the word "sabotage" comes from when workers in the first industrial revolution threw their wooden clogs or "sabots" into machinery to jam it and make it appear faulty and inefficient, with the hope that they would keep their jobs for longer.

3. There are two schools of thought. One - robots are the beginning of the end for humans, they will take our jobs, we will be redundant, social problems will increase enormously as unemployment rises. Two - automisation will mean a massive improvement in the lives of workers in manufacturing, who will be able to work shorter hours and thus enjoy better quality of life as they depend on smart machines.

4. It's not just robots, it's co-bots. While in some areas, robotics are taking over, humans work alongside them in others. For example, in the Chinese jewellery industry - gem setting is increasingly done by robots, but the more delicate polishing work is done by humans.

5. "It's not about costs, it's a necessity". Back to China - one Chinese manufacturer said the new generation of Chinese workers have aspirations beyond the factory, and do not see themselves as manufacturers, therefore, manufacturers are using robotics in their production lines out of necessity, saying they could not fill the jobs with humans even if they wanted to.

6. We have to make it work for everyone. As previously discussed, automation is coming, whether we like it or not, and there is a great deal of fear and anxiety about what it will mean for society. We are only just beginning to understand what it will mean, and it has to work for everyone, not just the top one per cent, otherwise it is in danger of being a step backwards, not forwards.

7. Something needs to be done to bring in more women. Apart from in the media room, where there were several females of the species, XX chromosomal makeups were distinctly thin on the ground. Of a three-day conference, I could count on one hand the amount of female speakers. One of the women speakers particularly stuck in my mind, as she addressed the fact that women working in manufacturing, particularly at a high level, are rare.

To expand on this topic, as it's rather a big one, and obviously close to my heart, one of the few female speakers, Kathryn E Wengel, worldwide VP and  chief supply chain officer of Johnson & Johnson, said only five per cent of jobs at her level were filled by women. To paraphrase her view on the subject, we don't need to increase the number of women for the sake of it, but it's actually a necessity because there are millions of unfilled jobs globally, not just in manufacturing but in the wider STEM sectors, and the industries can't afford to not make sure more women play a part. The way to address that, she said, is looking at what happens to put girls off the science and maths subjects early on in education, as far back as kindergarten level, and work on it throughout schooling, to stop girls getting "tracked away" from those subjects and therefore being ruled out of that kind of career.

It got me thinking about my own education, the choices I made, and how that has impacted on my own life, career wise. It is true that I was much better at all the "artsy" type subjects, English, Music, languages, traditionally associated with females, and thus likely to get better results, so my school was pretty happy for me to follow that path. I don't ever remember anyone saying to me: "If you're not going to be a teacher, jobs in those fields are pretty few and far between, and the pay and conditions are rubbish, oh and there is this thing called the Internet coming which will make a lot of them totally disappear". Joking aside, as no one really had any idea what impact the Internet was going to have when I left school way back in *gulp* 1997, you could argue that it was the school's job to get good exam results and that was it, but I wonder how different it is for today's teenage girls.

I remember a definite undertone that, as long as I got my C at GCSE maths that showed I could count to 10 without breaking into a sweat, that was sufficient, and I could spend the rest of my schooling burying my strange little head in 20th century poetry and harmonising Bach chorales to my heart's content.

I don't meet many Brit teenagers these days, but when I attend conferences, if admittedly, not the most recent one, I do come across local women who are studying for Ph.ds and carrying out research in scientific fields that I cannot even begin to explain, due to aforesaid lack of ability in science and maths. They seem to outnumber the men, although that could well be due to the fact that traditionally, more Emirati men than women choose to study abroad, and may follow those paths elsewhere. However, a speaker from Kerala, India, said that women outnumber men in science and maths subjects at universities, although, I would point out that you would need to have a look in 20-30 years' time, to see how that levels out, whether all those women with STEM degrees actually manage to sustain careers in those industries.

Anyway, I could start banging the drum here about discrimination and poor maternity provision and lack of flexible working which limit women's choices once they reach a certain stage in their lives, as God knows, I and many women I know have had experience of that in recent years, but that wasn't the point of this post. Robots, people, they're coming. And hopefully they won't be trained to recognise your skin colour, sex, age, weight, height, disability, or whatever, and treat you differently according to what they think that says about you. That would be nice, wouldn't it?

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